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Jeff McErlain: From Sideman to Frontman with his new album, NOW

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Bob Bakert, editor of Jazz Guitar Today: I became aware of Jeff McErlain through a friend years ago. I was instantly impressed with his style and technique.  Jeff is a Berklee guy so he knows the jazz language but he is also highly influenced by the Rock & Blues players of the 60s and 70s.  Listen to his phrasing and tone, and you can understand why he is now sharing the stage with Robben Ford. 

Brooklyn guitarist Jeff McErlain’s style of blues-rock draws from his roots listening to Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Alan Holdsworth, Eddie Van Halen, and Michael Schenker. Heavily influenced by classic rock and metal, Jeff soon expanded his musical tastes to the jazz and fusion of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, as well as the classic blues of Howling Wolf and Little Walter.

Jeff has toured and performed with Robben Ford, David Grissom, Matt Schofield, Jimmy Haslip, Toss Panos, Keith Carlock, and others.

Jeff is an in demand instructor and clinician with almost 30 courses with TrueFire, and runs an online classroom, The Juke Joint. He has taught and performed at the Crown Guitar Festival, Bath Guitar Festival, Umbria Blues Festival, National Guitar Workshop, Ruby Mountain Guitar Festival, and Robben Ford’s Traveling Dojo.

Jeff has released his latest CD “Now” featuring Robben Ford, who both produced and performed on the record.

JGT:  When I listen to your latest project, “Now”, I hear all kinds of styles brought together…  Tell us about the way your style/musical voice has evolved and what you are thinking as of you go forward in your career.

Thanks! I’ve always listened to many different kinds of music, which I think has helped and at times spread me a little thin. I grew up listening to what is now “classic rock” like Pink Floyd, Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, etc. I have an older brother who also played guitar when we were kids and he was a big music fan. I was exposed to a lot of great music through him, but it was when I first heard Blizzard of Ozz that everything changed. I became a metal head and still am to this day largely. Priest, Maiden, Sabbath, Rainbow, Scorpions, etc. Guitarists like Michael Schenker, Uli Roth, Jake E Lee, and Eddie. My brother turned me onto Dire Straits and Knopfler, Clapton, and Jeff Beck who are still on the top of my list. A big moment for me was Holdsworth’s IOU record, I didn’t understand it, but I loved it.  At Berklee, I got into Mike Stern, Scott Henderson, John Scofield, and of course Robben Ford. I was also introduced to straight-ahead jazz like Coltrane, Miles, Shorter, and more. It was a great time for guitar Eric Johnson was hitting, Steve Vai, Van Halen of course. So many great players. I’m also a huge blues fan. I think a lot of it came out in the wash at the end where I started to put it together into a mix of styles, but in my mind, I’m a rock guitar player.

Jeff (far right) with Robben Ford and band

JGT:  Let’s talk about your recent project with Robben Ford producing you. How did this come about and can you tell us about your collaborative process?

Robben and I met at TrueFire, I have quite a few courses with TrueFire and know the ropes very well, I was also a big fan of Robben’s. As a result, I was asked by Brad Wendkos (one of the owners) to help produce his first instructional course. We really hit it off and ended up helping out on a few more of his courses. We stayed in loose contact and one day he called me to teach at his Traveling Dojo. Of course, I said yes, and have been doing it ever since. During this time we became great friends and did a lot of playing together at the Dojo concerts. One night Robben called me and asked if I’d do a record together and of course I said yes. He asked if he could produce the record as that’s a direction he wants to go in, and of course I said yes…

The record is truly a joint venture as I wrote 4 of the songs and Robben wrote 3, the final is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”. Robben plays on every cut and solos as well. Largely I’d send him demos of songs and he’d say “You can do better” to “Fantastic”. He’d do the same with me, so we decided on the material together. For example, the song “Marta” was originally much quicker and he said, “no, that’s a ballad”.   I learned a lot from making the record with Robben as you would imagine. But mainly his love of music, enthusiasm, and the spirit he brings to everything. He’s a real inspiration to me and we have a great working relationship that’s based on our friendship. 

Jeff McErlain – NOW

JGT:  What guitars and gear did you use on “Now” … what is giving you your voice on this project?

I used 3 guitars on the record mainly. An R8 Les Paul that I actually bought from Robben who was buying an old gold top and wasn’t playing this one as much. He had already refretted it with 6105 frets which I use as well, so it was a no brainer for me. I put Throbak pickups in it, which are absolutely amazing. I have them in all my guitars. In that guitar, I have the PG102 set. The other 2 guitars are by my friend Michael Tuttle who makes spectacular instruments and I have been using his stuff for years. I can’t say enough good things about him and his guitars. I used one of his Tele style guitars that’s black with white binding. It really sings on “Habit” on the cd, my favorite tone on that record. The other is a strat style guitar he made for me that’s been my number one for 12 years. Alder with a rosewood board, the pickups are DiMarzio Area noiseless single coils that Steve Blucher made for me years ago that later became a production model, not sure which ones!

He amps are my Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature, Bloomfield Drive, and an early 70’s Marshall Super lead that’s mine, and early 70’s Super Bass that’s Robben’s. It was funny, he had heard my super lead at the Dojo as was surprised that a Marshall could sound so punchy and asked me to help him find one. I found him a nice Super Bass at 30th St Guitars here in NYC. It was funny that his experience with Marshall’s was more based upon the higher gain master volume style. He’d never experimented with the old 4 input style. Quite a different amp!

I was a Marshall guy all my life until working with Robben, I still love them for sure, but I wanted something different and a bit more Fendery. I had met Eli Lester and Mac Skinner, the owners of Two-Rock at NAMM a few years back and we hit it off. Eli said for me to call him and let’s see what we can do together so of course, I said yes. It’s been amazing playing these amps. I’ve played Robben’s Dumble many times and it is truly amazing. The Two-Rocks have the same qualities of feel, compression, clarity, depth, tone, etc. I have never been so happy with an amp as I amp with my Classic Reverb Signature. The Bloomfield is just as amazing, but for me, it is the Classic Reverb. 

JGT:  What is your recording process?  Do you have things charted out, rough format, create in the studio, etc.?

I demoed all the songs at home on Logic and EZDrummer, so they were pretty complete on the way into recording. We changed a few little things in the studio as the songs came to life with real musicians. I charted everything out and write out specific lines that needed to be played. Other than that I left it up to the rhythm section to make it better!

JGT:  How did you choose the players?

Robben chose the players in Nashville where the record was recorded. Terence Clarke on drums and Anton Nesbitt on bass. It was a total pleasure to play wit these two guys, such great players. I knew if Robben had chosen them, the’d be great. And they were!

JGT:  When playing live, what is your rig and what sound are you looking for?  Are there certain pedals that you use a lot?

Live it’s always one of the Two-Rocks. My Bloomfield is 40 watts and can go down to 20 watts, so in NYC that gets more use than the 100-watt Classic Reverb, it’s also a combo. NYC is not an easy city to gig in gear wise, so size, weight, and volume are always huge considerations. Robben is not afraid of volume, so that where I use the Classic Reverb and the 2×12 cab to keep up with him and the Dumble. These days I am leaning towards a cleaner guitar tone as the base and the Two-Rock does that amazingly well. The amps, although not clones, have some of the same qualities as the Dumbles, but I can still get old school Marshall tones as well. They take pedals very well which is important. My main pedals are the Klon KTR and the Vemuram Shanks Fuzz. The Klon, well, it’s a Klon and is a great clean boost to hit the amp a bit harder for solos. The Shanks Fuzz is probably one of my favorite pedals ever. It’s a fuzz but it’s also very overdrive like, it’s quite unique. I’ve actually done gigs where I have used that for everything. What I love is I can step on it and it can take me to that Cream era Clapton tone right away, it cleans up great, and if I crank it more, it can so dome Jimi style fuzz stuff too. IT sounds great with humbuckers which isn’t always the case with fuzzes.

JGT:  You have an eclectic style… you draw from variations of rock, blues, and jazz.  What does the inclusion of“jazz” add to your playing?   Why were you drawn to jazz after starting with a more blues/rock style? I ask this because many of our readers are pentatonic blues/rock players and want to add jazz language to their playing. What is your recommendation as a jumping off place?

Thanks! That comes from loving music in general and also from being accepted by players growing up who were more jazz influenced. I love the harmony and lines in jazz. I’m an improvisor at heart and when I played in rock bands I hated when the band or manager wanted me to play the solo from the record. I can understand if you are in Roger Water’s band, those solos are iconic and a part of the song, situations like that are different. But in my own music and background, it was always very free form and improvisatory, that’s what keeps it fun and interesting. That’s why I love the blues as well. Guys like Jeff Beck showed me early on that we can mix the styles. Stern, Sco, Henderson, Landau, etc.

Jazz taught me how to play over changes and add chromaticism into my playing.

I’m a terrible traditional straight-ahead player, I understand it and can make the changes etc., but I don’t have the vocabulary. Mainly because I don’t love it enough. I do love rock guitar sounds and attitude, when I think of what a guitar player image is, Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page comes to mind. Aesthetically I’m more influenced by rockstars than jazz musicians. It was a very freeing feeling for me at one point to say to myself “It’s ok not want to be a jazz musician” so I basically said the hell with it and tried to just be me.

JGT:  You have a relationship with David Grissom, as well as Robben Ford. To me they are very different, how does your approach, instruments, etc. change working with Grissom?

David is also one of my good friends and favorite players, such a monster. Honestly we haven’t done much playing together in any official capacity although I’d like to change that! But we have both played in Robben’s band, so we have that in common!

JGT:  You have been a strat “bolt on” player for much of your career and recently you’ve added a Collings I 35 to your “stage mix”.  Tell us about that.

Yeah! I’ve always loved 335’s starting with Clapton and Alvin Lee. I thought they looked cool! Some of the switch came recently from working with Robben. He suggested I put the strat down for a while as I sounded more like myself on a humbucker guitar. I can see his point at times as I realized I would sometimes slip into channeling Beck or Jimi (as best I could) and not be myself. I thank him for that suggestion. I’ve been coming back around to the strat but it’s a little different now in the way I approach it.

The i35 was a real surprise actually for me, as I said I love 335’s but found them a bit big and not easy to travel with. The i35 is scaled down and much more comfortable for me. Of course, Collings makes great stuff and as soon as I got the guitar it became my number one. I got it on a Monday and took it on the road on a Wednesday and it’s all I used. I just love it, it’s so versatile and the quality is amazing. Above all it has some mojo to it, it feels like an old guitar but with none of the hassles in tuning, etc. It also sounds like an old guitar to me. The people at Collings have been great as well. I haven’t been this happy with a guitar in ages.

Jeff McErlain during NOW sessions

JGT:  Who are the people you are listening to now?

I never seem to grow tired of old Clapton from the Cream and Bluesbreakers era. To me it doesn’t get any better, that feel and tone, it’s so good on every level.

I love Michael Landau who is one of the best. Julien Lage, Blake Mills, Kurt Rosenwinkle, etc. I do listen to non-guitar music a lot too! I’ve been on a Renaissance music kick lately of John Dowland and just discovered the choral work of the American Composer Morten Lauridsen which has been blowing my mind. 

JGT:  Tell us a little about working with Robben Ford

It’s been amazing and still continues to be. I have grown so much as a player as a result of working with him. He has pushed me to work harder to find my own voice. He’s been very supportive and a mentor in many ways. Simply being onstage with him and him giving me all that freedom to do my thing has been amazing and I am fully aware and grateful of the position I am in. It has been a reciprocal relationship too in many ways. I’ve helped him with his workshops that we do together. I’ve helped him find some new sounds and pedals, pushed him to build his online presence to connect more with his audience. But mainly he’s my friend and we enjoy each other’s  company and playing together. So from that aspect, it’s like being in a band with your friend, who happens to be Robben Ford. 

JGT:  You are a prolific teacher and have a catalog with TrueFire.  What is your overall teaching philosophy?   How important is it for players to read? 

I’ve always taught since Berklee and I really enjoy it. My philosophy is that most everyone can do it to a great extent and it’s how much time you devote to it. Talent can be overrated! With my students I like to push them forward while they are still having fun. I have to know what their goals are and work with that. For example, the way I teach someone who is a professional is very different than the hobbiest. I look that I am providing knowledge and happiness. As for reading, I can read of course, but not very well, I don’t devote much time to it anymore. It’s a great skill to have and I’ll write out solos I transcribe, but I’m not a fluent sight reader. I do teach it depending on what the student’s goals are. 

JGT:  Do you have an approach or a philosophy to soloing?

Sure, tell a story, be melodic, listen, and don’t play licks. I think the best solos are the ones that follow those guidelines.

Ok for sure I love ripping players like Yngwie, and there is call for that and it’s fun as hell, but ultimately, I grow tired of it. I want someone soloing to take me on a ride. 

JGT:   What is your approach to harmony?

Having a jazz background my understanding of harmony is pretty advanced for lack of a better word. But it comes down to style, genre, and taste. For example, sometimes I play in a very traditional blues band and I have to keep it very simple harmonically as a rhythm player and soloist. At first, it just did my thing and got the stink eye, for good reason. I wasn’t honoring the music. Little Walter songs don’t call for the super locrian scale. Especially when the rhythm section doesn’t have that background. That’s why I love Jimmie Vaughn. He keeps it super simple, but that’s really difficult to do and keep it interesting like he does. I like harmony that bends my ear a bit because it keeps it interesting to me. But a while ago I came to the conclusion that I’m basically a rock guy with jazz influences. I’ll happily leave the deep harmony to Kurt Rosenwinkel. 

JGT:  Can you talk about playing rhythm and working with other guitarists?

I’m used to playing in a trio mainly so I have to cover a lot of the harmony. I never gave it much thought! I just kind of did it and worked it out. As a result, I realized I had worked in a lot of chord melody that occurred naturally. I needed to fill that space and it became part of my style. I’d tell any player to really work on their rhythm playing. It’s so important and a lot of fun. Listening is the key, being aware of the surroundings and the music going on around you. 

Playing with Robben has been quite an education. His rhythm playing is some of the best on the planet. Often times I had no idea what to do to fit in. So basically, if he goes high, I go low. If he plays riffs I play chords. Basically the opposite of what he does! And when in doubt, lay out. 

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